February 7, 2008

Dim Sum: Rachel Blau DuPlessis

It was very strange to read Ashton’s essay last summer and to find myself face to face with a “me”--an RBD--whose opinions and positions were mainly Ashton’s invention. I don’t really want to engage in polemic with her essay nor discuss what “essentialism” is/was or how I pretty much have never talked about “the body” or “women’s writing” in the ways that are somehow attributed to me, or, rather, to this RBD simulacrum. And in many ways, the Spahr and Young essay have made a turn away from Ashton to a much more vibrant set of questions and interests. There are many cultural necessary debates about feminism, post-avant work, gender and the social institutions of literary practice that are occurring to great effect in that essay and in Dim Sum. Yet it seems to me it might be useful for people to have five or six paragraphs of echt DuPlessis, as written by her, to test Ashton’s similacrum if people desire to. All writing needs to be interpreted. And Ashton has as much right to her interpretation as anyone, but all interpreters need to check the relevant texts thoroughly. These paragraphs are from “Reader, I Married Me: Becoming a Feminist Critic.” Originally written in 1990 and 1991, first published in 1993, and with additional material from 2004, these paragraphs now appear in Blue Studios: Poetry and Its Cultural Work (University of Alabama Press, 2006). It is an autobiographical essay that, at the beginning (uncited here), offers a little deconstructive riff on autobiography.

I had been trying to write about Pound and Williams, to “rewrite” my dissertation: a dead task. Dead and commanding. Dead and authoritative. Dead and obligatory. Having read Robert Duncan’s illuminating essays on H.D. contextualized in a feminized and heterodox modernism (published in Caterpillar in 1969), I had never accepted the mandated ignorance of H.D.’s work, but did not bother to examine her power, for I had internalized the priorities and hierarchies of study and excellence: Cantos, worthy; Helen in Egypt, unread (Duncan 1969). But in 1975, after reading Susan Stanford Friedman’s “H.D.: Who Was She?” in the context of my developing work on women poets, I was finally propelled to begin serious study of H.D.[1] I needed a woman, a poet, and a modernist, and I needed her badly.

Despite the fact that one of my first ideas of feminist criticism was the re-reading of every cultural artifact (and, indeed, have maintained, through the years, a feminist fascination with Humanities courses and with male authors), I tilted with my whole generation toward to the startling discoveries of women writers, female “voices,” precisely because they had been culturally buried. This project was revendicatory: we were recovering something; we were claiming it. This began as “equal rights” criticism—female writers could be shown to “compete on an equal basis”; yet “women” did not necessarily live in social and cultural equality, and the position quickly modulated into the discovery of particularities in women’s writing precisely based on various readings of female social and psychological specificities and differences (from males, and sometimes, later, from other women). Of course there was an immediate investment in unifying or totalizing the idea of “woman.” As a real intellectual and cultural idea, it had just been won from a morass of prejudice, contempt, and misogyny, and needed self-solidarity, which slid (often too easily) into the notion of affirmation and unity.

What else did the early feminist criticism of women writers feel like? If we found textual marks of wholeness, it was because we sought personal and social wholeness, in a spiritual sense, yes, but also as legal redress--to be made whole. If we sought heroes in both the women writers and in their personae and characters, it was because we had few with whom to identify. The affective imperative to “identify” with the objects of study I would later resist, but then it was crucial. This first hermeneutic circle was driven by deep necessity; one must now read it contextually, with empathetic understanding. However, I always distrusted victim-to-apotheosis narratives or even pure victimhood narratives in early feminist criticism.[2] Writing itself was a complex claim to agency, and, reflecting upon the transformative energies of women writers, I called their processes of biographical and literary selection and transposition “the career of that struggle.” I suspected the notion of authenticity--finding “the” woman’s voice, as if it had--or could have been!--preserved in Atlantis-like perfection through the ages. This yearning for originary or organic moments of wholeness could be an enabling myth towards writing, but it was not useful for the critical analysis of writing. So I was constantly and skeptically skirting what has been called “cultural feminism.” For me the significant moments of feminist criticism were psycho-social, culturalist analyses of literary production; “gynocriticism” was always a subset of that approach, in my view. Writing was a complex species of ideological negotiation, the constructive and formal transposition of cultural materials in a social matrix: that idea persists in all my critical work. [This appears on pp 25-26 of Blue Studios; a page or two later, I talk about the essay “For the Etruscans” in The Pink Guitar: Writing as Feminist Practice (1990). University of Alabama Press, 2006.]

“For the Etruscans” wasn’t prewritten--it was a negotiation with materials arrayed. After I had given a seminar at a Barnard College Conference on Women and Society on the question (not the certainty) of “a” female aesthetic--a burning issue in 1979--I was asked to write it up. So I did. Although I was committed to collaging other people’s voices with my own as only one among many, in actuality it did not quite work out that way. Authorship is not dissolved by fiat. But that is why the “author” of that essay is myself and “Workshop 9”--the presence of interlocutors was crucial. The presence of a feminist movement was even more crucial.

Rhetorically “For the Etruscans” mingles manifesto, analysis, inter-cuts of material from that Workshop, letters to friends, the fluid form of talking, and a sense of audience--the enormously excited and participatory group of women for whom, to whom, from whom I was speaking. The essay, with its commitment to multiple citation and to recording participants in that seminar--was writing into that fervent and palpable and aroused and debating female space (cf. Carla Kaplan 1996). Thinking was a real situation and had real stakes. A rhetoric and an analysis have a social matrix; its ethics is created in responsibility to that matrix. Utopic love roused art for rethinking, re-seeing.

I did not want hierarchy or claims of controlling authority over a set of materials; thus I chose “collage” and “the field” as modes or methods of thought, quite aware of using modernist “devices” for feminist purposes. The two tactics were invested in the creation of a site in which things happen and are juxtaposed. Ludic things: Rhythms of apprehension. Stress shifting. Change-ups. Carnivalizing yet analytic discourses. Mongrel, hybrid sounds. Placing the reader, as well as the writer, in a variety of subject places. Faceting. Dissolving the author into the sounds of the text. Making chaos, diversity, melange. Constructing a porous openness of thought. In this essay, a particular female person makes analysis, has dreams, outcries, offers doubled-voiced montages, mats of citation, experiences longing, grief, and curiosity in/out of the situation of acute feminist attention. Its (apparent) inclusiveness and its fragmentation, its heteroglossic glissades are consciously oppositional and critical.

“For the Etruscans” has had a career of its own. It has been taken as an example of what it set out to study—of “the” female aesthetic. However, what it actually says is that women, like other members of “(ambiguously) non-hegemonic” social groups, are driven to use structural, rhetorical, and epistemological tactics that run counter to normative ones (DuPlessis 1990, 14). I did not try to falsify or distort what I thought: that “feminine” writing tactics were the tactics that can be chosen by any non-dominant group. The rhetorics and strategies are situational, not essentialist. This was not a popular finding then, when we were, in general, in the full bloom of a dynamic, rather absolute and resolute sense of female difference. Yet insofar as I was acting oppositionally—refusing patriarchal culture as a choice, I also chose to use the very rhetorics I discuss. The essay makes no special claim for a or the female aesthetic (or even solely female aesthetic), but its rhetoric can arouse to hope for change of consciousness and ideology, can move the reader (at least temporarily) into a utopian space of gender hope. Doing that kind of work offered an artistic extasis that also proposed some serious principles about the polyvocal, the multi-generic, the interested, the non-objective.

It seemed that one needed, as a feminist, to invent an endless number of forms, structures and linguistic ruptures that would cut way beyond language-business-as-usual and narrative-business-as-usual, which always seemed to end up with “the same” kind of binary, “patriarchal” normalcy. Experimental writing of all sorts had always been crucial to the feminist project of cultural change: of revolution, not revision. It seems to me that feminism (with other socially based cultural movements) is a necessary completion of modernism. (Of modernisms, both “high” and “post-.”) Writing cannot make these changes alone; but writing exerts a continuous destabilizing pressure, and, in both analytic and formal ways, creates an arousal of desire for difference, for hope. If consciousness must change, if social forms must be re-imagined, then language and textual structures must help cause and support, propel and discover these changes. So the essay aims at the decolonization of mind by the analysis of the deepest of imbedded structures: gender. [This appears on pp. 27-28; the conclusion of the essay occurs on 31-33--the following three paragraphs:]

My whole career has been challenging the politically quietist sheer-formalist and challenging the formally-stolid narrowly-construed political. Working the between.

This “poethics”--a wonderful coinage of Joan Retallack--involves investigation, examination, critique, resistance. To see, at least, where I’d been, as my feminist “poethics” debated modernist experiment, I collected ten years of my essays (mainly published by small press journals from 1979 on) in The Pink Guitar: Writing as Feminist Practice (DuPlessis 1990). Since a number of the essays concerned Pound, Williams, and Eliot, as well as Duchamp, at least I managed finally to “rewrite” my dissertation. This critical position went along with a mobile investigative strategy in writing poetry highly indebted to objectivist practice: investigation of “the real world, the real, real world,” as Carl Rakosi once remarked in conversation. For some of the poetics and some of the intransigence, I was indebted to the work of the objectivist poet George Oppen, many of whose writings in poetics occurred in his self-chosen form: personal letters. With a perspective on archival work about neglected or marginal figures that I had developed from work on H.D., I engaged from 1980 to 1990 on a large-scale editorial and textual project: The Selected Letters of George Oppen, which presents materials important (in my view) to contemporary poetry and poetics (Oppen 1990). My interest in the critique and dissolution of the canon (note the working contradiction) is not focused solely on women writers.

Following the logic of feminist critique, I saw that reading gender needs to be further elaborated by analytic interplays among studies of race, class, sexualities, religious culture and other psycho-social forces and locations, and by studies of the manifestations of these markers in culture and text. Feminist cultural studies would be based on establishing a plural, dynamic relationship among social markers as constructed in and as text. None of these markers is static and already understood, but each is created in political, cultural, social, and historical interactions whose activities, contradictions, and textual manifestations need critical scrutiny.[3] I wanted to discuss all this for the poetic text. In doing this work, I argued that modern poetry drew upon, helped to create, and responded to several new entitlements for social subjects in modernity: New Woman, New Negro, New Jew. These subject positions brought other issues and subjectivities in their wake, including the discourses of maleness/ manhood/ masculinity, of whiteness, of mongrelization, and of hegemonic Christianity. But it was not simply the statements and themes of poetic texts that interested me; I rejected extractive readings for a study of the helix of poetic form and ideological positions. My book about modern poetry brings together my interest in the intense aesthetic substance of the poem and in socio-cultural readings. Genders, Races and Religious Cultures in Modern American Poetry, 1908-1934 offers a post-formalist reading strategy that looks at the deep mechanisms of literary texts with a kind of “New Critical” care, yet, at the same time, links formal material to the issues that purist New Criticism rejected: social substance, biographical traces, constructions of subjectivity, historical debates, ideological strata (DuPlessis 2001). Thus the book foregrounds a practice of “social philology”: the interdependent mesh of a text’s social and aesthetic aspects, mediating between what is said in poetry and what is said as poetry.

I have never thought there was one way women did or should or could write: style, form, structure, language, rhetoric are all tools consciously and unconsciously used in the deep agency of writing. As Woolf said in A Room of One’s Own--certain material differences between men and women are still constructed and perpetuated in our society, and it is the job of feminism to resist these, to try to dismantle these, and, as well, to understand their impact, which can be considerable in the case of artists. This is the importance of feminist reception and writing inspired in the general matrix of ongoing feminist critique. [This is the last paragraph of the essay.]


[1] I had the pleasure of working in H.D.'s manuscripts and archives, always, I would argue, a vital move for an enriched understanding of figures whom one is trying to recontextualize and put on the critical agenda. My work on H.D. issued in DuPlessis 1986, Friedman and DuPlessis 1990 and essays in DuPlessis 1990.

[2] The introduction to The Feminist Memoir Project analyzes this phenomenon. “Earlier on [in second wave feminism] women could bear to name themselves as victims because the end of victimization was in sight—through feminist politics. In contrast, the word ‘victim’ today is like a heavy stone; no one expects victimhood to budge soon, so once again, few want to acknowledge a ‘sisterhood’ of timeless pain and sorrow. And those who enshrine victim status run the risk of seeming to claim that such status is in itself a source of power” (DuPlessis and Snitow 1998, 20).

[3] Thus, I feel situated in what Susan Stanford Friedman called Post/post-structuralist feminist criticism, a criticism that (like Nancy Miller's) does not scant intention, agency, thematics, and the impact of material conditions, while it makes nuanced readings of language and linguistic play, the partial and interested claims of any reality, and the careers of master narratives (Friedman 1991). This is what it now (1990) meant to me to be a "feminist reader."

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